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valade16
03-02-2016, 11:46 AM
So I was really hesitant to create a "hype" thread for my Portland Trailblazers in case their recent win streak was a fluke. Well several weeks later and they are 18-4 in their last 22. But then I saw a great article on the Blazers rebuild on ESPN of all places, that had some very interesting observations (that are bolded):

http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/14877651/chemistry-commitment-blazers-ahead-schedule

Minutes after the Blazers found out LaMarcus Aldridge was bolting for San Antonio, breaking apart one of the league's most polished starting lineups, C.J. McCollum's phone rang. It was Damian Lillard.

"He basically told me, 'This is our chance to show everyone -- our coaches, the whole league, everyone -- that we can be elite together'," McCollum told ESPN.com.

Lillard's brand of quiet, empowering leadership was a big reason the Blazers were confident they could rebound from the departure of Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Wes Matthews, and Nicolas Batum -- the last of whom left in a trade that Neil Olshey, Portland's GM, began discussing two months before Aldridge left. McCollum still remembers how much it meant when Lillard plopped down next to him on the team plane in February 2014, after McCollum, then a rookie who barely played, dropped a season-high 19 points on Minnesota.

"'You have to play like that every time you get a chance,'" Lillard told him, according to McCollum. "'Because believe it or not, it's gonna be us together in the backcourt here for the next seven or eight years.' And that was when I was fighting for minutes."

It sounds hokey, but Lillard legitimately inspires his teammates, and the Blazers understood he was too good for them to tank. You tank to get stars, not alienate the ones you already have by punting their prime seasons.

"We already had a star that was an incredible natural leader," Olshey told ESPN.com, "and quite honestly, he was held back from taking that kind of role because he was trying to make it work with veterans."

Olshey never tried to sell Lillard on bottoming out. "When you have a star good enough to single-handedly win you more games than organizations playing for the draft, it's pointless," Olshey said. "But we could ask him: 'Can you be a bit patient?'"

Olshey sought a middle way: Jump the market on veterans around Lillard's age, sign them to long contracts that would look cheap as the cap boomed, and remain lean going forward. The Blazers wouldn't make the playoffs in the brutal West, but they wouldn't be awful, either -- the perfect sweet spot, considering Portland owes Denver its first-round pick, via the failed all-in deal for Arron Afflalo, if it falls outside the lottery.

Whoops. The Lillard-McCollum Project has worked better than even Olshey expected. Portland is the best NBA story outside Oakland -- a selfless, hard-charging group that has blitzed to a 17-4 record since early January and seized a playoff slot that looked hopelessly above their pay grade two months ago. They might lose that pick after all, in what would appear a crippling blow for a rebuilding team that needs young players and trade chips. The play of Will Barton and McCollum makes the sting worse: If they were ready to back up Matthews last season, the Blazers acquired Afflalo for no reason.

But the Blazers aren't sweating it.

"If we had a bunch of veteran mercenaries, the pick would be a major loss," Olshey said "But with one of the youngest rosters, the value of playoff experience far exceeds getting a guy at the end of the lottery."

"From a competitive perspective, the guys don't want us to have that pick," McCollum said, laughing. "That is someone coming in to take your job."

The Blazers are so far ahead of schedule, rival executives are fretting they will turn into the next version of Phoenix -- the would-be sad sack that exceeds expectations in Year 1 of a rebuild and burns its long-term plan in a fit of irrational win-now exuberance. That worry is misplaced. Olshey is a careful, patient GM who appears to operate with some degree of autonomy from ownership. He is not going to sign an expensive 33-year-old star to chase a mid-rung playoff seed next season. Olshey zooms in on targets that fit Lillard's age curve. He drafted Al-Farouq Aminu with the Clippers and lavished him with the first deal in free agency while everyone else chased stars.

He understood the Nets had a star center and a cupboard empty of draft picks, so he swapped the No. 23 pick in last season's draft for Mason Plumlee -- a decent starter who has meshed well with both Lillard and coach Terry Stotts. Portland made initial inquiries about Greg Monroe at the deadline, but those talks went nowhere, league sources say. Olshey pursued Monroe before, and if the Blazers fall back out of the playoffs, he can dangle their first-round pick, a young player on a good contract, and cap space. Boston can outbid anyone on the trade market, but Portland can compete for the guys the Celtics don't want.

The Blazers never get anyone in free agency, but they are confident that if someone spends a year with Lillard and Stotts, they will stay.

You can hear the snickering: How is a core of Lillard, McCollum, and a Monroe-level import going to compete with the Warriors, Thunder and Spurs? This is why some executives on other teams have kicked around the possibility of Portland eventually including McCollum in a megadeal for some disgruntled star -- a path Olshey isn't considering now.

But most teams don't have the luxury of ping-ponging between the poles of chasing titles and tanking. Reality demands they exist somewhere in the middle and try to grow organically into something special -- you know, kind of like the 2014-15 Blazers before Matthews' torn Achilles tossed Portland off its trajectory.

Maybe that can happen again. Portland has time; Lillard is content ahead of a five-year extension that hasn't even kicked in. Noah Vonleh is still just 20, exploring the basics of his game. Maybe he grows into a home run, or at least a sub-star, in four or five years.

Regardless: Can't we just enjoy these Blazers for a minute before worrying about how they'll ever battle for a ring?

Portland will be a good offensive team as long as Lillard and McCollum are healthy. Lillard is Earth's closest thing to Stephen Curry -- a lead ball handler who makes a ton of 3s off the dribble after slithering around picks. Only Curry has jacked more pull-up 3s, and McCollum ranks 15th overall, per SportVU data.

That threat puts enormous pressure on defenses and warps the geometry of the floor. If Lillard's man gets stuck on a pick, you're toast -- unless that big man help defender lurches out to trap Lillard 30 feet from the rim. And when Lillard draws out those traps, this happens:

The early-season demotion of Meyers Leonard -- finally finding his stroke again as part of a killer bench mob -- left Portland's starting lineup with a sneaky lack of shooting, but having two guys who bend defenses this way compensates.

But the Blazers turned their season around on defense. They're eighth in points allowed per possession since the first week of January, after leaking points earlier in the season. There is no magic to Portland's reversal. Stotts decided in mid-January to drop his big man back further in the pick-and-roll, barricade the rim and coax more midrange jumpers.

It's working: The Blazers allow few attempts in the restricted area, and opponents have hit just 56.8 percent of those shots -- tied with San Antonio for the stingiest mark in the league, per NBA.com.

Ed Davis, one of those 26-and-under signings, has never been better, and he took one for the team in January, when Stotts tweaked Portland's scheme. Davis plays with Leonard off the bench, and Leonard struggled scampering around with power forwards while Davis tussled with centers in his natural habitat. Stotts asked Davis whether he might swap to simplify the game for Leonard, and Davis agreed.

"It has made things easier for Meyers," Stotts said. "The more you are around Ed, the more you appreciate him."

Stotts is quick to point out that none of this works without total buy-in from perimeter players. They have to bust their *** sliding around picks without falling too far behind and leaving their big man partner out to dry -- a tough task for alleged liabilities like McCollum, Lillard and Allen Crabbe. (Crabbe is going to get paid in free agency this summer, by the way).

And that's what you notice most of all: These guys try hard. They shove enemy guards away from picks, contort themselves around screens and execute the specifics of Stotts' game plan every night. The increased pressure has produced an unusual heap of turnovers for a Stotts team.

They talk to one another and stay alert to everything going on around the floor. When a Blazer guard gets beat back door, one of the big men will dart into the passing lane, arms spread wide, snuffing one problem without cracking open another. Aminu is a legit one-on-one stopper against big wings. Lillard has been a laughingstock, but he's gotten better, and Stotts is comfortable switching him onto bigger players -- including Paul George in Sunday's resounding win over the Pacers. "Dame is strong," Stotts said. "He holds his ground."

Portland has outplayed its talent. If the Rockets played with this level of effort, joy and cohesiveness, the Blazers would be at least one spot lower on the Western conference ladder.

And here's the twist: The Blazers wouldn't defend this way without the chemistry they've developed on the other end. Lillard and McCollum are the fulcrums, but everyone is involved on every possession. Role players don't chill in the corner. Stotts urges them to stretch the boundaries of their games.

Plumlee gets to bring the ball up and sling passes from the elbows. Aminu, Crabbe, and Gerald Henderson rarely take the pick-and-roll controls, but when Lillard swings them the ball, they have the freedom to pump-fake, drive and keep the chain moving.

Henderson's return to form after offseason hip surgery has solidified a bench rotation that is punking teams every night -- and provided Stotts more small-ball options. He's making his corner 3s, too. Turns out he wasn't just empty salary-matching fodder in the Batum deal.

Everyone cuts and screens. Portland leads the league in off-ball screens by a mile, more than even the Warriors, per data supplied to ESPN.com from the tracking site Vantage Sports. With Aldridge gone, the Blazers have excised static post-ups and devoted all 48 minutes to Stotts' flowing offense; only 2.8 percent of Portland's possessions have finished via a post-up, the lowest such share ever recorded for a team, per Synergy Sports.

Stotts isn't running a charity. "Guys play harder when they feel involved," Stotts said. "It takes a special guy to play his *** off on defense when he doesn't feel involved."

The constant motion makes Portland unpredictable, and unpredictability makes up for what might otherwise be a fatal lack of spacing in some lineups -- including the starting five. Plumlee is a rim-runner; Vonleh's shooting range is mostly theoretical; and teams sag way off Aminu when he's behind the 3-point arc. The lane can look like a forest.

But help defenders won't arrive at the rim on time if they are looking in the wrong place. Taj Gibson, a heady defender, is so distracted by the whir of off-ball screening on the left side, he doesn't realize Lillard has a free run to the basket.

The Blazers pull that sort of distraction trick several times every game. "We create spacing in a different way," Stotts said. "With all our screening, you can't really load up on one side."

Portland also frees its best rebounders to crash the offensive glass, and they've managed that without surrendering fast-break points.

Offensive harmony bleeds over to defense, and even into off-court activities. "It honestly helps that most of us are young," McCollum said. "We can hang out together. We don't have a lot of 30-plus guys who have kids and can't do the same things as the rest of us." (One exception: Chris Kaman, the team's oldest player, picks group dinner spots. Probably not a ton of vegetarian options on those menus)

Portland plays for one another. The Blazers are better than the sum of their parts. That is a product of Stotts' inclusive system and Lillard's encouraging voice. (The Blazers haven't picked up Stotts' option for next season, but it would blow me away if the summer passed without an extension). As Jason Quick reported last week, Lillard texted Maurice Harkless when he was out of the rotation, urging him to stay sharp. He did the same last season for Barton, and those messages kept Barton engaged, he told ESPN.com.

"I knew Dame was ready for this," Barton said. "I'm not surprised they are this good."

When Portland blew a big lead against Houston last week, Lillard fired up the group text messaging chain to remind everyone such an effort was unacceptable.

"There is no BS with Dame," Stotts said. "It's genuine. Guys appreciate that, especially when it comes from your best player."

There will be setbacks, and Portland might miss the playoffs in the end. They fattened up on an easy, home-heavy schedule that included the league's most turnover-prone teams. The Lillard-McCollum duo faces a size deficit almost every night. Portland's core small-ball groups with Aminu or Harkless at power forward -- units that often close games -- have struggled on the defensive glass.

Lillard will occasionally gamble himself out of position at the wrong time, leaving a good shooter open.

The juggling act with Leonard's defense has been awkward and resulted in a ton of fouls; only the Sixers have a worse free-throw differential. Davis and Plumlee aren't fast enough to scurry with power forwards, and when they fall behind, they resort to hand-checks:

"Some of it is inexperience," Stotts said.

"Young teams get a quick whistle," McCollum added.

The Plumlee/Leonard combo has been a disaster on defense. Stotts has experimented lately with a Davis/Plumlee pairing, but it's unclear whether the Blazers can survive on offense with those two on the floor -- especially if Aminu joins them.

Portland will have to upgrade its front court, starting this summer, when Leonard hits restricted free agency. Portland got sticker shock at his asking price during extension talks last fall, sources say, and if they don't think he can defend well enough at either big-man position, they might look for another stretch big; it's too early to earmark big minutes in that role for Vonleh. Serge Ibaka looms as interesting possibility in the summer of 2017, and Olshey surely has targets in mind for the interim.

The Blazers are never going to get the tier-A free-agency studs, but players and agents have noticed what has happened in Portland over the past two months. Lillard, Stotts, McCollum and Olshey have put themselves in the derby for the next tier of guys. That counts as a massive success in Year 1 of what looked like a marathon rebuild.

The Blazers knew better. They are a joy -- a testament to the hoops magic that can happen when the right players and coaches come together, and work for the greater good.


Are the Blazers for real? Is their success sustainable? What does their future potential look like and what do they need to do to improve? What do you think they will do in this years playoffs? Or will they even make the playoffs?

2-ONE-5
03-02-2016, 12:27 PM
that was way too long to read in full lol. but have to give props to Lillard and the Blazers. I always thought he was overrated but i think he is solidifying himself as a star in this league right now. Always been a fan of McCollum going back to Lehigh and preferred him to MCW on draft night but he went the pick before. They are setting themselves up to be real contenders in FA this offseason.

KnicksorBust
03-02-2016, 12:55 PM
that was way too long to read in full lol. but have to give props to Lillard and the Blazers. I always thought he was overrated but i think he is solidifying himself as a star in this league right now. Always been a fan of McCollum going back to Lehigh and preferred him to MCW on draft night but he went the pick before. They are setting themselves up to be real contenders in FA this offseason.

It's worth the full read. You left one very important person off that props list.

Terry Stotts.

IndyRealist
03-02-2016, 01:52 PM
Plumlee, Davis, and Aminu are the kind of under the radar players you surround someone like Lillard with. They almost never command a major salary, but put wins on the board.

valade16
03-02-2016, 02:08 PM
It's worth the full read. You left one very important person off that props list.

Terry Stotts.

His time in Dallas under Rick Carlisle was invaluable. Many Portland fans had trepidation when we hired him believing him to be a re-tread coach. His ability to adapt the offense to the teams strengths has been incredible. Our offense is vastly different than last season.

He deserves a lot of credit for sure.

Hawkeye15
03-02-2016, 02:12 PM
His time in Dallas under Rick Carlisle was invaluable. Many Portland fans had trepidation when we hired him believing him to be a re-tread coach. His ability to adapt the offense to the teams strengths has been incredible. Our offense is vastly different than last season.

He deserves a lot of credit for sure.

he really does. Stotts is an excellent coach, makes nice in game adjustments, and players want to play hard for him.

Lillard just pisses me off haha, he always lies dormant against my puppies, then lights them up when he needs to. I went to the Portland game this year earlier, and they are also gigantic across that front line, so it's tough to score in the paint on them.

Scoots
03-02-2016, 02:28 PM
Always liked Lillard ... there is something about guards from Oakland that I like :)

The Blazers are the truth ... they hit the wave of change in the NBA just right. Look at the standings. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA and nobody expected them to be able to maintain even into the playoffs last year there were doubters. Now Portland in the west and Boston, Toronto and Charlotte in the east ... teams that are playing smart and fast and non-traditional and are the up and coming teams.

Watching the NBA these last 2 years I think it's clearer than ever that intelligence in players is the most underrated skill while height is the most overrated. How can that be a bad thing? (unless you are a fan of the old school teams)

kobe4thewinbang
03-02-2016, 02:35 PM
It's a shame that Oden got hurt and Roy got hurt, because those two with Aldridge--wow.
But it's good that CJ and Lillard are balling right now. Hopefully a game changer joins the cause.

CHANGO
03-02-2016, 03:40 PM
Stotts deserves all the credit. Most of us thought they would be a lottery team and now they are fighting for 5th place on the West. Congrats to Lillard and McCollum, hope they keep this up. Well deserved.

Also thinking about Stotts, there are a couple of NBA coaches who deserve some mention too, Joerger with the Grizzlies is doing a fantastic job after beginning the season with the wrong foot. Gasol is out, Lee is out, Green is out, and they keep winning. Stevens obviously, but the one flying under the radar is Spoelstra.

Chronz
03-02-2016, 03:41 PM
Thats no ESPN article, thats Zach Lowe being forced into using their awful format. Its a great read and shows you the value of intangibles. I remember Hollinger ******** on Larry Brown once for force feeding touches to Big Ben, just to get him involved. Statistically, it seems like a waste of a possession but that 1 extra touch motivates him to work harder on both ends and helps improve the teams overall play.


Plumlee, Davis, and Aminu are the kind of under the radar players you surround someone like Lillard with. They almost never command a major salary, but put wins on the board.

Must be nice to have an actual GM. Blazer fans need to be thanking Doc Rivers for taking his job.

KnicksorBust
03-02-2016, 05:04 PM
The question is can they get a legit big who fits with Lillard and CJ in the offseason and become a threat in the West again. Fun to watch them overachieve and Dame prove how good he is but this 18-4 run is above their talent level and in a loaded West with equally well coached teams with far superior talent they aren't going anywhere.

2-ONE-5
03-02-2016, 05:31 PM
they should target Barnes in FA, perfect fit

5ass
03-02-2016, 05:34 PM
The question is can they get a legit big who fits with Lillard and CJ in the offseason and become a threat in the West again. Fun to watch them overachieve and Dame prove how good he is but this 18-4 run is above their talent level and in a loaded West with equally well coached teams with far superior talent they aren't going anywhere.
I would actually look to trade CJ for a big and look to add some wing players. Guys like parsons, fournier, beal, derozen, barnes, ect..

GiantsSwaGG
03-02-2016, 05:36 PM
The Blazers are like the Washington Wizards of the West, great back court and average front court. If I'm the Blazers I would trade Al Horford

GiantsSwaGG
03-02-2016, 05:38 PM
I would actually look to trade CJ for a big and look to add some wing players. Guys like parsons, fournier, beal, derozen, barnes, ect..

I wouldn't trade CJ, they compliment each other well, having two guards that can take over a game is hard to come by, you don't mess that up, add a Al Horford they'll be scary

5ass
03-02-2016, 07:06 PM
I wouldn't trade CJ, they compliment each other well, having two guards that can take over a game is hard to come by, you don't mess that up, add a Al Horford they'll be scary

They could still have that if they add Derozen, Beal or even Fournier. If they trade CJ they would be getting a quality big man back.

GiantsSwaGG
03-02-2016, 08:28 PM
They could still have that if they add Derozen, Beal or even Fournier. If they trade CJ they would be getting a quality big man back.

It's not guaranteed those guys would sign with Portland

CJ is better than Beal, Fournier is too inconsistent and isn't on the level of CJ, DeRozen maybe but still. Sign Al Horford and call it a day

KnicksorBust
03-02-2016, 09:12 PM
The question is can they get a legit big who fits with Lillard and CJ in the offseason and become a threat in the West again. Fun to watch them overachieve and Dame prove how good he is but this 18-4 run is above their talent level and in a loaded West with equally well coached teams with far superior talent they aren't going anywhere.
I would actually look to trade CJ for a big and look to add some wing players. Guys like parsons, fournier, beal, derozen, barnes, ect..

No way did you read the article? Lillard and CJ are bros. You can't break up bros. That would be like trading Luigi to pick up Bowser. Mario be like wtf. Chemistry killed. They are bouta run por for the next 8 years son. Just spend that money on the best big you can get.

Scoots
03-03-2016, 01:22 PM
No way did you read the article? Lillard and CJ are bros. You can't break up bros. That would be like trading Luigi to pick up Bowser. Mario be like wtf. Chemistry killed. They are bouta run por for the next 8 years son. Just spend that money on the best big you can get.

Dude, Luigi been tapping Princess Peach azz behind his back for years. Sometimes you gotta kill a brother.

ewing
03-03-2016, 02:21 PM
I like that the article gave proper credit to Lillard. Portland did well but there success was possible for one reaosn: D Lillard is really good

mrblisterdundee
03-03-2016, 02:55 PM
It's a shame that Oden got hurt and Roy got hurt, because those two with Aldridge--wow.
But it's good that CJ and Lillard are balling right now. Hopefully a game changer joins the cause.

I would say that both Lillard and McCollum are game-changers. But Portland still needs another star or two to contend. I hope they go hard after Harrison Barnes this summer.

nycericanguy
03-03-2016, 03:51 PM
Lopez, LMA, Batum, Afflalo, Wesley Matthews

Crazy to think they got rid of all those guys in 1 year are are still above .500.

celticsman2009
03-03-2016, 04:20 PM
Celtics just whacked them last night. I really like Lillard and McCollum though. At one point, I posted about trading Avery Bradley to Portland for McCollum.